When Things Are Clearer in the Dark: Contrasts and Displacement in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For”

I have always loved the nighttime. During the day, people are so inhibited, but under the cover of darkness, people are often compelled to act more genuine. lê thị diễm thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For explores this elucidating effect of darkness. Gangster tells the story of a young girl’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee with her father, Ba, and four ‘uncles’ following the Vietnam war. The first chapter of the book, “Suh-top,” features a series of vignettes from the narrator’s first couple months in America. Lê utilizes imagery of lightness and darkness to convey the narrator’s emotions of displacement during her first couple moments in an unfamiliar country.

While the narrator and her family drive over to their new home in America, she describes her new surroundings as “unfamiliar brightly lit streets” (lê 4).The lamps on the streets create artificial light. Although light usually has connotations of happiness and rebirth, in this context, has a fake effect. This reflects that while the narrator may be grateful for the opportunity America has given her, she cannot experience true lightness, or happiness, in a non-artificial way due to her displacement from her home and family. The fact that these streets are unfamiliar creates a feeling of alienation and dejection, which is juxtaposed with this intrusively ‘positive’ light, creating an uncomfortable contrast. This also reflects the characters’ feelings of discomfort, as they are out of place in America in the way light stands out in the dark.

After driving through the streets, they are “delivered to a sidewalk in front of a darkened house” (le 4). The fact that the house is not described as dark, but “darkened,” insinuates that the nighttime is darkening the house. However, the “darkening” also reflects the narrator’s state of mind. The artificial light from the lamps is gone, and she is forced to face the reality of the situation that is presented to her. It is also foreshadowing to her experiences in the home, which are mostly negative. This inauspicious start to her experiences in the house immediately paint the it as a place of suffering and darkness.

It is ironic that although earlier the streets were lit up, they were obscuring the reality of their situation as dark and dismal. In this sense, darkness allowed the characters to see their condition as it actually is. By contrasting images of lightness and darkness, lê foreshadows the characters’ situations throughout the rest of the chapter. B3.

An Interview with lê thi diem thúy

Works Cited

le thi diem thuy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

One thought on “When Things Are Clearer in the Dark: Contrasts and Displacement in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For”

  1. I love the idea that light and mood are so intertwined, as you point out in this post. I would even add that the fact that the house is “darkened” makes it unwelcoming as well as that her state of mind is dark. While of course it is nighttime, the idea that there is no sign of light creates the sense that this is not her true home, for there is no light (in any sense of the word) there to greet her. However, I have been struggling to figure out the exact place of light in this story. While light here should act as a positive force (as seen by the contrast of the dark, unwelcoming house), it acts instead as almost a facade. The street lights create a fake sense of home and we see light negatively again as the uncles paint the house white. The brightness of the color should be welcoming and yet it is almost ominous. I think that the negativity of the usage of light here stems from the fact that neither the street light nor the white paint is natural; they are both man made. This veneer of light to cover up the darkness underneath adds to the idea that this is not the narrator’s home and calls into question any sense of belonging.

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